Reviewed by Ricardo A. Herrera (Department of History and Geography, Texas Lutheran University)
Published on H-War (December, 1999)
Lawrence E. Babits's Devil of a Whipping is a model study of the 1781 Battle of Cowpens that integrates "new military history" and its bottom-up approach with traditional operational history and a keen understanding of terrain and topography. Babits, an associate professor of maritime history and nautical archaeology at East Carolina State University, painstakingly combed through pension records, participants' accounts, and contemporary maps in order to produce this sophisticated and deftly written examination of one of the American Revolution's key battles.
The Revolutionaries' victory at Cowpens was one of the brightest American tactical moments in the War for Independence and a contributing factor toward the eventual British surrender at Yorktown. Yet, despite the battle's significance in both the final American victory and its own rightful status as a "tactical masterpiece," it is, according to Babits, "not well known today" (p. xii). Babits posits that this may be due to professional and popular interest in George Washington (ibid.). Moreover, contemporary accounts and histories of the battle are conflicting, particularly regarding the number of troops involved. Thus the battle's obscurity and participants' and historians' diverging standpoints provided Babits with the initial impetus for his research. The final spur came from Babits's particular field of expertise, historical archaeology. Recent digs at the Little Big Horn and resulting computerized databases on artifacts, sites, and terrain have refined and expanded the sources on the Custer fight and led to revised interpretations of the battle's final details. However, eighteenth-century ammunition used paper and cloth cartridges, not metal. Because of decomposition, archaeologists are prevented from plotting unit locations and the flow of battle at Cowpens. Nonetheless, the Custer example seems to have indicated to Babits that a similar kind of meticulous fieldwork might be applied to Cowpens vis-a-vis pension applications and the physical battlefield itself.
In December 1780, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene took command of demoralized American forces in the Southern Department, replacing Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. Earlier that year, in August, British forces under Maj. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, had defeated Gates at Camden, South Carolina, taken Charlotte, North Carolina, and were poised to move further north on the American post at Salisbury. Greene's command was suffering from inadequate supplies, poor discipline, and disease. The situation, however, was not entirely gloomy. That October, "overmountain" militiamen defeated a British thrust at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, destroying Cornwallis's western flank column and forcing a British withdrawal to South Carolina. With Cornwallis refitting, Green had to maintain the momentum gained at Kings Mountain while addressing the problems facing his army.
By dividing his forces and advancing into South Carolina, Greene enabled his men to forage and refit while giving heart to Patriot forces and making Cornwallis's hold on the state tenuous at best. Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan, an experienced frontiersman and light infantry and rifle officer commanded a wing of Greene's force, the Flying Army. While in the field, Morgan threatened the British supply base at Ninety Six, upsetting Cornwallis's plans for invading North Carolina. Lord Cornwallis responded to Greene's division of forces and Morgan's threat by sending after him a mixed force of regulars and Loyalists under the command of Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. If Tarleton could destroy Morgan's wing of the army, he would both protect Ninety Six and screen Cornwallis's left flank in the impending invasion. Morgan understood that he would have to face Tarleton in battle, but he intended to do so on the ground of his choice and in his own time.
Morgan chose his ground well and drew his enemy to it with consummate skill. The site he selected was a well-known road juncture near the North Carolina state line, affording access to several nearby fords. Physically, Cowpens was a well-watered plain with low hills, gentle sloping ridgelines, rivulets, and scattered swampy areas. As Morgan withdrew northward, away from Ninety Six, he denied the pursuing British column any potential support from Cornwallis and the main body. While doing so, Morgan's men foraged liberally, thereby depriving Tarleton's men of food and supplies. When the two armies met on 17 January, the Americans were rested, well fed, and in skillfully chosen positions. Morgan's talent for reading terrain and posting troops was matched by his aptitude for leading soldiers and taking advantage of their strengths. Tarleton's men, on the other hand, were exhausted, hungry, and marching straight into battle with little time for rest or preparation. The ensuing battle, which lasted less than an hour, was a stunning victory for Morgan and one of the most serious defeats suffered by British forces in the war.
Babits's mastery of the sources, feel for the battlefield, and understanding of eighteenth-century warfare is undeniable. After combing through pension applications and other participant accounts, he subjected them to post-battle interview and time-sequence analysis methodologies like those employed by S. L. A. Marshall and John Keegan. Tables and descriptions of marching speeds, musketry, wounds, contemporary maps, and the battlefield itself underscore this impressive work. A Devil of a Whipping is an important addition to Revolutionary War and American military historiography. Babits's style, meticulous research, and analytical rigor should make this appealing to professionals and general readers alike. It is one of the finest accounts of a Revolutionary War battle and should be considered a standard against which future works should be measured.
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Ricardo A. Herrera. Review of Babits, Lawrence E., A Devil of a Whipping. The Battle of Cowpens.
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